Sex and the Cogito: Intersex of Plato, Lacan, Levinas and Irigaray (updated version)
[Full text of my talk on Feminism and Philosophy of Sex during the Institute of Social History and Department of The Humanities Seminar Series held on September 9, 2011 at the Bulwagang Bonifacio Hall]
The invitation I have to this seminar states that I will be speaking not far off between doing philosophy and doing sex (doing as in talking about sex which is more correct).
Earlier, the Philosophy Society wanted me to give a talk on feminism, and frankly I had never been so ill at ease.
In terms of my philosophical training, I can connect the feeling I had at that moment to a totalizing concept. That is the concept of singularity, in itself a concept of difference. Let me tell you about this concept:
“My being a ‘man’ or ‘male’, whatever you call it, already locates my being within a context of singularity with its predetermined structure of meaning, a unique ego-logic constitution, even symbolic objects of fantasy which set me apart from a woman, another being, and are therefore indications of my being different, my being a unique factor over against someone that gives me exclusive power of existence, that is, to exist as a universal subject of history.”
Or so what I and most thinking male species but also unthinking ones of even still a thinking lot have been made to assume and profess. This is of course a fallacy derived from the Cartesian cogito: I think, therefore I am. Because I thought it first—the ‘it’ marking a moment of discovery of the subjective kernel of reality—therefore, I am the first. And you can see I am a Man.
As many of my so-called ‘progressive’ male colleagues can attest, it is difficult for a man to be a feminist. Simply put, feminism is a reaction against the abuses of the masculine order—my abuses and every other male’s, whether a son, a brother, a father, an uncle, or what have you, but they must be adult to begin with.
Today, we can say that modern society is a far cry from the old patriarchal order because women are becoming assertive, ushering a break in the continuum of male history. While that is true, it is also tenable to hold that men are also becoming increasingly aware of the limits and miscarriages of this history, their history, such that we can recognize a history that at the minimum is taking a new turn. For this I consider myself a feminist.
But if it is going to be a question of sex, my being a feminist is not enough. For sex, as Jacques Lacan would say, is beyond any relation that a man or woman can agree or disagree to have. There is simply no sexual relation to begin with much less end without. There is only sex.
You probably know by now why I agreed to speak on the two topics, feminism and philosophy of sex, after the organizers of the forum decided to combine them. First, I think the two topics speak of one syllable and that is sex. (Unsurprisingly, to combine is reminiscent of intercourse). That will make my job a piece of cake because to all appearances I will be dealing with a monosyllable that is mightily easier to pronounce.
Second, though spoken as a monosyllable sex is always thought of in multiple differentiated thought-syllables as Sigmund Freud had shown. Sex is otherwise secretly uttered as a longing, a craving, or consummation; sometimes a trophy, other times an implacable memory of fear and trembling; occasionally a lingering taste of immaculate joy, but mostly, a disappointment. For this, as most adult male species of our genus can attest not without having gone through a long pilgrimage to self-admission, sex is a tall order of the day. Meaning: It is a request that cannot be easily fulfilled. Philosophically—an appeal to which any responsal will always be found wanting.
To respond to this type of tall order, as we can deduce from the Platonic dialogues, is to deal with the primordial obsession of all human cultures, that is, to venture into the impossible reunion of two sexed bodies into one sexless originary being that throughout ages has informed Man’s obsession with unity and harmony, on the level of community ethos, and with the metaphysical transcendence of the One or the Same, on the level of the historical.
To achieve the originary sameness of being is an impossible objective. But this has been the obsession of the masculine.
Ultimately, the goal of sex (inscribed in the masculine psyche about which we will learn more when we turn to Lacan) is to reduce differences into the Same which implies a totalitarian motive. The Same is the origin of differences, and thus of the species with differences internal to the Same. But as origin it cannot be duplicated which the masculine rather attempts to make two of.
Among others this explains Plato’s critique of mimesis (the process of making two of one) which poetry exercises. The Same becomes a business of taxonomy, such as a class, a genus or family in which related species are grouped together. The Same is a concept of singularity which in itself accommodates differences and yet differences are variations in being qua being, but not in terms of the absolute ground or origin. In terms of the absolute ground or origin, the Same is the same for all conceivable origins, and thus for all times. The Same is a necessary tautology, a necessary nihilism of human existence.
Though he did not deny its necessity Plato had seen this nihilism as a threat to the human condition. As a necessity the Same is a fabrication of the origin, ‘a noble lie’. This lie is instigated by the masculine order, the republic of the guardians. Plato’s instinct can tell us that he was ill at ease with this concept.
Take note that Socrates’s audience was all-male; most were trained in sophistry, at the same time expressive of their liking for virtue over vice that was shaping Athenian culture. But they were reluctant to govern and change the lives of many suffering Athenians!
At one point they would put on a sense of responsibility by accepting his challenge, and yet when Socrates exposed the heavy burdens of governance, such as the requisite of strict social measures, not sparing their own kind, as well as the severity of the rule of virtues including the ban against property ownership and raising their own families, they complained that Socrates was making it hard for philosophers to govern.
The question is—did Socrates really want intellectually superior young males to govern the polis? I think the answer is no. Plato’s subtle warning about the noble lie—that it threatens the human condition—is addressed to the masculine order.
We may argue here that Socrates proposed the noble lie because his audience were males and posing as philosophers. In other words, Socrates did not want his sophistically inclined audience posing as philosophers to govern.
The noble lie is a secret pact among the guardians. Philosophically, the noble lie is the lie that there is truth. It becomes noble when the lie is concealed and projected as a certainty—that there is truth. The truth behind the lie is that only being gives truth, thus there is no truth independent of the power of being to invest and fabricate one. The aim is to keep this secret from the public where the stakes are much higher. The public must not discover this lie or anarchy reins.
The noble lie is the achievement of the singularity and unique difference of the guardians compared to the lack of identity of the masses or the commonality of the public. The lie is an achievement of elite and esoteric knowledge vis-à-vis the ignorance and common sense knowledge of the lower class delighting in superstition. But the guardians cannot declare and profess their achievements in the public realm. In short, the guardians must not practice their sophistry. Simply put, Socrates distrusted the male elite of his time.
But where are the women?
In fact, Plato added another restriction to the guardians after the restriction on practicing sophistry, that is, the prohibition to exercise the absolute singularity of the masculine by having absolute sexual right over a wife and emotional right over a progeny. Seemingly at all fronts the masculine is reduced to a machine.
The masculine loses its absolute singularity and therefore in essence it is non-existent. Again, where are the women? The women take place, and thus every woman is an event, but an event that happens outside of his-tory, after the loss of the ontological honor of the masculine. This loss of singularity is also connected to the victory of the Good. For Plato the ultimate object of philosophy is the Good. We can thus conclude that the birth of philosophy coincides with the death of the masculine. After the death of Man the order of justice emerges, otherwise the Good beyond being.
Philosophy is the name of the event of that death, the death of absolute singularity, otherwise the emergence of the other of singularity traditionally identified with reason. But then what is reason?
Isn’t it a noble lie to say that everything is rational? The noble lie that there is truth, and that it will set us free? In contrast, the pronouncement that there is ‘no truth, only being’, the anathema of the noble lie, brings up the otherwise than rational, the Good beyond Being which is beyond what the masculine can take.
For this the enemies of philosophy have branded Plato a homosexual and a diffident misandry. But if homosexuality means the assertion of one’s right to exercise sexuality then homosexuality is non-existent in ancient Greece. For the Greek pederasts like Socrates and Plato the practice of sexuality is a non-issue. The ancients exercised sexuality without supposing arbitrary difference and singularity of sexual freedom.
Yet despite the non-issue of sex among the male pederasts Plato remained suspicious of the upbringing of the young male elite, an upbringing greatly shaped by poetic mimesis based on the assumption that Man can only copy the Real.
But what was it that they actually tried to copy?
The noble lie tells us all: they would be reduced to copying nothing because they cannot reveal the truth. The truth that there is nothing to copy except what they chose to copy. And they chose to copy themselves to make of nothing something to begin with, which makes history, the history of Man, possible. Plato resented this idea. Copying is the business of singularity. Copying becomes a vicious cycle of the same. In the history of philosophy, the Same has acquired the name and currency of Reason, the culmination of absolute singularity and difference in terms of self-consciousness and the supremacy of knowledge over ignorance.
But what knowledge comes down to in the final analysis is the achievement of the consciousness of nothing, hence, the nihilism of reason. To break this nihilism Plato was the first one to propose the quest for the otherwise than rational (the rational that carries a chauvinistic weight), which he identified with the goal of philosophy.
In a number of ways Jacques Lacan helped carry through the analytic of the masculine started by Plato yet a long way from pursuing the radical intuitive direction of Plato’s unwritten feminism. The result is otherwise than Platonic: an apology for the sovereignty of the masculine and the superfluity of the feminine.
There is not much time to discuss the labyrinthine structure of Lacan’s thought here and thus I will be concentrating on one important concept relevant to the structure of my paper presentation. I will be concentrating on the Lacanian concept of the master-signifier, the phallus.
Fryer (2004) summarizes this concept of Lacan:
“Access to subjectivity in Lacan is access to language, and access to language is the ability to take up a position in relation to language’s master signifier—the phallus.”
Sigmund Freud established this symbol of the phallus, of a fully erect penis, to refer to among others a psychic defense mechanism against castration. Castration does not only mean a physical threat which in primitive times was used as a punishment. Time is the greatest castrator, a metaphysical stumbling block to the satisfaction of human desire. The symbol of the phallus projects itself as either beyond time or that which is symbolic of time itself. As symbolic of time the phallus becomes an alpha castrator; acquires a supreme punitive power, a sovereign that has absolute right of sexual gratification.
The phallus projects omnipotence, but as such conceals a fundamental weakness, such as the biological and physical limit to erection that is also subject to the psychic economy of desire. By now it is understandable why the male psyche becomes the symbol of time itself, more correctly, a symbol of the alpha male, the Father as in Father Time. The symbol of the alpha male comes to constitute existence which is metaphysically impossible without time. In terms of the empirical structure of existence this symbol of male supremacy constitutes the authority of the Law.
For Lacan the subject is always already sexed by language from the time of birth, and as such is already within a social grid that is coextensive with language. 
What is more important to note here is that the subject is inevitably masculine, the locus of sexuality that is the locus of the subject, of being in the more intimate sense. Once again the importance of the phallus carries a universal weight. Even still, the phallus is not all.
As Lacan would argue “Where there is being, infinity is required.”  This infinity strikes at the heart of sexual gratification, which is not a gratification in the vulgar sense, rather one that makes society stable. For society to be stable it must allow for the play of infinity. Paradoxically, infinity is secured by the intriguing presence of the feminine, which represents a foil in the satisfaction of the male desire.
The feminine is the foil to male satisfaction precisely because the feminine is not whole (pas-tout), ontologically wise, not being.  For Lacan, strictly speaking, the woman does not exist. Ironically, the male desires the feminine in the same manner as being covets infinity, which is not being. This is described by Lacan as phallic jouissance, a form of gratification with much disappointment involved, like an orgasm that comes as a quick culmination of which under ordinary circumstances is sexually negotiated with a longer amount of time and a hefty amount of concentration.
However, though frustration is typical of phallic jouissance, the case of female gratification is much more problematic. As Lacan continues to argue: “[Woman’s] sexual organ is of no interest except via the body’s jouissance.” But this jouissance no longer falls under the phallic command for obvious reason—a woman doesn’t have a penis.
Ruth Golan (2006) offers her own observation:
“As for women, according to Lacan they do not fall entirely under the authority of “phallic jouissance” but have an additional jouissance that cannot be expressed in words, if only because every act of speech entails a demand of sorts and every demand is on the phallic level (which women don’t have). Therefore, women have a surplus value of jouissance, which perhaps only mystics and poets know how to touch.” 
In other words, no male can ever satisfy this infinite called the female whose being not-whole, whose being not being is actually its strength. The female always demands sex. That is her strength. But she can only demand sex as long as the phallus exists, which however, as Lacan continues to argue, is a “self-perpetuating fiction.”
If the phallus is not fictional, or if it is everything, then it is difficult to imagine a time for society and culture.
Though a fiction, it is a necessity for humanity to continue to survive. This is something Plato would find disconcerting. The fiction of the phallus guarantees the continuity of the noble lie which not only men desire to preserve. Women also desire the phallus.
In fact they desire it more than males do. Males desire the symbol of its power and thus desire its fictionality. As for women, they can tell us better. She wants it badly, according to Freud (which Lacan agrees). In this sense fiction must have a basis on material existence. The closest to a penis she could get is the clitoris, but it is tiny and cannot compete with a male organ.
But then the male organ desires the female organ whose need for the phallus renders the act of sex problematic. If the female organ wants to be a phallus, as it is the case, then what does it make of a male organ that desires the female organ? First, it would make the act of sex distinctly homosexual. But it is much complicated than that.
The male actually desires not the female organ—remember in Lacan the woman does not exist and so her actual body—but the organ’s jouissance. In other words, the male desires the female organ’s jouissance but also the female’s displeasure. Take note here that the female aspires to be the phallus herself, aspires to exist as a body and yet she cannot owing to her lack of actual male organ. In Lacanian terms to exist is to be a being on the phallic level. The complication goes even further.
The female desires and demands a phallic jouissance that the male cannot provide owing to one simple fact—phallic jouissance is narcissistic in nature. There is more, it is also fictional. The fiction of a fully erect determined sex organ, unflagging, dogged, resolute, but to all appearances autistic because it is always pointing to heaven at an unmovable fixed point. The female desires that autistic figure but it only exists in fiction. Overall, this makes the act of sex between a man and a woman a deeply problematic exercise.
But there is a way out of this fix if we take Lacan seriously. Even still, the solution is strictly phallic. The key word is love which is always a feminine concern.
For a woman to exist she must try herself to become a phallus but since it is impossible she can instead try to succumb to male desire, a desire that makes being or existence possible. Existence is neither existential nor ontological or phenomenological, neither scientific nor religious. It is through and through phallic in essence. And so a woman offers herself, her vagina’s jouissance to male desire in exchange of her becoming a phallus by accessory. To cap it all, a woman demands love from a man, ever oblivious to the fact that men are incapable of love if we mean love that tries to escape the authority of the phallus, unconditional love, so to speak.
Men can only accept love on condition that it serves their phallic jouissance. This is where Lacan credits the feminine, also capable of fakery and lying, that is, faking their phallic availability through arousing male desire in the hope of ensnaring him to love her eventually. And so most of the time the woman conceals her frustration by exposing instead other parts of her body while covering her sex organ—the vagina as the source of the sexual complication on the phallic level. Her exposition of her other body parts, by means also of cosmeticizing her look short of revealing her skin, reveals her as a symptom, a symptom of phallic frustration.
Yet, lucky for women the phallus is a fiction. This also applies to the masculine that has no reason to rejoice over the prospect of the phallus ceasing to be fictional one day. On the one hand, if the phallus is Real women will abandon motherhood and child-rearing. On the other hand, because it is not all Real, men are guaranteed of rest and so are the chances of ending war which is nothing but a fight for the vagina’s jouissance.
Needless to say, society is founded on the infinite delay of male gratification and the conservation of the impossible demand of female sexuality which makes culture possible. In actual terms of social life this situation may be expressed as the necessity of faking the phallus through the ability to love. By and large, against Lacan’s expectations, this makes the feminine an all too important figure. Society would not be possible if the feminine never learned to fake men.
In contrast to Jacques Lacan’s negative treatment Emmanuel Levinas’s view of feminine love is quite positive and admiring of her power, a power that issues from the mystery of the Other. The Other that as other cannot be contained and thus retains its alterity as the unassumable.
Fryer summarizes this aspect of Levinas’s view of the feminine love:
“The relationship of love with the feminine other is a relationship of failure. Love is an attempt at merging, but with the alter no such merging is possible. All that is possible is the caress, an attempt at contact, never the touch, the actual contact, if the otherness of the other is to be preserved. The subject moves to the other in the caress out of a desire he knows can never be achieved—the desire for unity.”
If Lacan doubted the ability of the feminine to give love to the masculine, Levinas appreciates the feminine in terms of its ability to interrupt the illusion of unity most especially in the act of sex. Earlier, we said something to the effect that the masculine always attempts at unity, at the reduction of differences into the same. In Lacan, this reduction takes place in terms of phallic jouissance in which all forms of human enjoyment are dependent on the condition of the phallus.
But the unity of the sexes is neither guaranteed by the authority of the penis, nor by the seduction of the vagina, best illustrated in coital performance. The unity is inscribed in the scene of two bodies locked in their sex organs that does not move and must not allow for any interruption, the concentration must not be compromised, or it simply must stop at a fixed point of union.
This is how the unity of sex is transcribed into the logic of the Same. However, no such sex is possible. The union must be interrupted to give way to a set of motions, sometimes even unanticipated, each move is different from the other, from the previous ones that were also internally differentiated, such that the union is necessarily deferred, the union that by all means gestures the castration of the phallus.
The union means the termination of action and thus the beginning of the fiction called the permanently erect penis. Upon this termination the penis detaches itself from the illusion of unity, hence, the return to the fundamental difference of the sexes occupying two different sides of the bed.
From this fundamental discovery of the fiction of the phallus to how the phallus motivates the turn of history toward abstractive unity the history of the development of the One without the Other is crystallized by Western philosophy. This One is no less the masculine figure that dominates Western thought. In place of the reduction of differences, including sex, to the Same, Levinas advocates openness in connection with his concept of the Other.
For this to be possible in terms of recasting the history of philosophy, to renounce its fixation to the One and its reductive logic, Levinas seems to suggest that it must first see its beginning in how it can change sexual relation from which all transcendent forms of existence emerge. Against fixation to coitus or intercourse, Levinas suggests a more open approach to sex in terms of the caress:
“The caress is the mode of the subject’s being, where the subject who is in contact with another goes beyond this contact… The seeking of the caress constitutes its essence by the fact that the caress does not know what it seeks…The caress is…made of this increase of hunger, of ever richer promises, opening new perspectives onto the ungraspable.”
The alternative offered by caress nevertheless attests to the failure of love to unite two sexed individuals, as Lacan earlier noted. If for Lacan love is some type of feminine deception, for Levinas its failure is a fact of existence. In place of love, Levinas prefers the voluptuous intention of the caress in which for him lies the future of sexual difference that will be less founded on the positive, male phallic or vaginal phallic, identity of subjectivity than the irreducibility of the otherness of each identity always voluptuous, always seeking for the other in the otherness of her ungraspable essence that cannot be contained by neither the sex organ nor even still by the aimless touch of the hand, hence, the guarantee of sexual passion that seems to know no end because aimless and without content, which “does not allow saturation but deepening.”
Yet, in a situation where enjoyment is contained within the universe of two passions, the non-objectivity of the erotic in the caress, unlike the intercourse that has the organ as its objective, may even still fall into the hedonism of the phallic. In the pure eroticism of the caress, lovers are oblivious to one another—
“As long as both myself and the Other are immersed in oblivion regarding our mortality, we can indulge in erotic enjoyment and assume that this enjoyment will last.”
Levinas does not say that we must eternally defer orgasm in favor of the eternal unforgiving caress between two sexually agitated individuals. He seems to discourage rather the privileging of objectless and aimless orgasm in order for sexuality of erotic enjoyment to mature in a certain direction. This direction is not a totalizable direction or the finality of enjoyment, rather its transcendence, which means an eroticism of a higher form, paradoxically an Eros without desire. This erotic direction has two forms: 1) without desire Eros begins to respect the otherness of the Other, its irreducibility that cannot be contained by desire, and 2) the transcendence of the erotic culminates in paternity, itself a nontotalizable direction.
On the one hand, Eros without desire engenders an erotic relationship in which the person is conscious of the other person as person, that she cannot be reduced into an erotic object, that the other person is fragile and therefore constitutes a foil to enjoyment that cannot last forever. The awareness of the limits of enjoyment, or the limits of the sexual partner, is a necessary preparation to a higher awareness of mortality, of death. On the other hand, the transcendence of the erotic in paternity, which for Levinas, cannot be made possible “without the fecundity of the feminine other,” engenders a relationship in which a subject can relate to another subject that is totally nontotalizable, the child.
Levinas would argue that “I do not have my child” and yet, “I am in some manner my child.” The child is the figure of an other that is irreducible to erotic enjoyment and ontological categories. Still, as Levinas would argue, the child would not be possible without the feminine other. Thus mother and child constitute the final foil to the authority of the phallus.
As Luce Irigaray correctly argued, this puts the feminine in a position of inferiority despite Levinas’s declared aims. The fecundity of the feminine is reduced to an orientation where the masculine finds himself transcended by a third term, the child. The feminine before the consciousness of her fecundity by the male, her fluidity, her promise to throw him into a delirium of joy, or before the masculine realizes the mortality of sex and therefore an end to his hedonism, is without an identity apart from her objectal place in the erotic enjoyment of the phallus.
The feminine is ungraspable and it serves Man’s purpose—he takes no responsibility for her alterity. She is already other before Man meets her. Even still, Man invents the unassumable, the space of the other, before he allowed himself to officially meet a woman and make her a classifiable case. He rather finds responsibility in paternity through his child. It is therefore the male, like Levinas, who relegates the female into the unassumable, into an other whose function is to provide an opportunity for the male to overcome his sensuality. But what about the opportunity for the feminine? If she is ungraspable, what opportunity is in store for her?
Clearly, she has no opportunity in history. She may have one or two outside of history. A post-human order. Irigaray criticized the masculine order for its inability to renounce its nostalgia for the mother’s womb that explains the male obsession for phallic unity. (Her criticism applies both to Lacanian psychoanalysis and Levinas’s philosophy of the Other which are made possible by the centrality of the male figure in their texts).
The truth of the matter is men cannot have sex with their mothers—only their fathers are entitled to that. To compensate for this failure, men invented the phallic mother, the mother as the possessor and keeper of the phallus, at the same time castrator, which in many ways is correct. Mothers bear in their wombs the generation of sons who would be fathers. Mothers were phallic until the fathers forbid the sons to think lewd of their mothers. In the absence of the fathers, the mothers in honor of their husbands assume the function of the castrator. Men however think lewd of women who are not their mothers. Thanks for the prohibition of the fathers. Men learned the wonders of the Eros that they were prevented to experience with their mothers, including their sisters, and those barred from them by consanguinity. But women would be mothers some day. For the time being men would enjoy the hedonism of Eros and until women offered them the opportunity to overcome their nostalgia through bearing their children, men can enjoy the symptom called the feminine. But children grow fast which give men another opportunity to recover from transcendence.
The closest thing to redemption the feminine could have is the Levinasian caress which places the feminine in a non-objectal situation in the erotic enjoyment, because her vagina is not the priority and therefore keeps her dignity, her virginity, keeps her from bearing his child—in this situation, her lips and her mouth take the place of the function of genital enjoyment by which she keeps her virginity intact, and yet nothing in this caress changes the order of the act of caress, from the one who caresses to the one caressed.
It is only a matter of time before she becomes pregnant with his child. A million free condoms will have no use. Condoms cannot change the way men perform sex. Once, men unloaded their juices in a place they knew by instinct. Today the slime and smell will be Mother Nature’s job to handle and dispose of.
Thank you for listening.
 David Ross Fryer, Intervention of the Other: Ethical Subjectivity in Levinas and Lacan (New York: Other Press, 2004), 85.
 Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Paul Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1997), 284.
 Jacques Lacan, On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XX, trans. Bruce Fink, ed. J.A. Miller (New York: Norton, 1998), 10.
 Ibid., 7,
 Ruth Golan, Loving Psychoanalysis: Looking at Culture with Freud and Lacan (London: Karnac, 2006), 5; parenthetical underscoring mine.
 Fryer, Intervention, 96.
 Pierre-Gilles Guéguen, “On Women and the Phallus,” in The Symptom, 10, .
 Fryer, 75.
 Ibid., 76.
 Tanja Staehler, Plato and Levinas. The Ambiguous Out-side of Ethics (New York: Routledge, 2010), 81.
 Ibid., 83.
 Fryer, Intervention, 77.
 Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other, trans. Richard Cohen (Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1987), 91.
 See Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993).
This entry was posted on September 10, 2011 by voltarzi_samsa. It was filed under Contemporary Philosophy, Immanent Philosophy, Metaphysics, Phenomenology, Platonism, Psychoanalysis, Social Philosophy .